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I never feel any pressure when I am taking a Spanish test. Sure, maybe Spanish is not my best subject. Maybe I am only able to write two coherent pages. But during any given test, I am as pressure-free as a flat tire. After all, even if things go badly that afternoon, there will still be one-hundred and sixty-one other tests to make up for it.
Playoffs are maddening things. You could not invent a more inefficient way to choose a champion (aside from, perhaps, a heated match of rock-paper-scissors). This may be especially true of baseball, but it is true for anything. Professional poker players often readily admit that on any one hand they can be beaten by a novice. If you shortened a game of “H-O-R-S-E” to a game of “H,” any mediocre rec-league warrior could take down Robert Horry with startling regularity. Even playing out the entire word, Big Shot Bob would be fully capable of losing, and losing often.
This warping of reality is the reason statisticians and analysts speak of “sample size.” When the size of the sample is small enough, strange things begin to happen. Suddenly, the predictive power of numbers evaporates. Maybe a die has a one-in-six chance of coming up “four.” But on any one roll, seeing four dots on the top of the die would not surprise everyone. If you roll a hundred fours in a row, then you’d arouse suspicion (see: loaded dice), but for that one isolated flick of the wrist, all bets are off. (Except when you are hanging out with Charles Barkley. He’d give you 10-1 on $15,000.) So the professional poker player doesn’t base anything on one single hand; instead, he plays a conservative game, confident that over the span of enough hands, the true talent will win out.
But even as totally illogical as playoffs are, everyone uses them, so there must be value in them somewhere. Obviously, playoffs are played because they suck people in, but the reason they do so is slightly less clear. Some would argue that the playoff format caters to our underdog-loving sensibilities, and there is some truth to that. We gravitate toward the unlikely, and part of the playoff allure is the fact that Rocky just might take down Apollo. We love that kind of story. Hollywood does not churn out countless movies about pre-season favorites that fulfill expectations, or about handsome, witty, intelligent guys who get the girls. Surely the Rocky Complex explains part of the appeal of playoffs, but it does not tell the whole story.
Life lacks a safety net. While a long regular season may be the best way to determine the superior team, it is also wholly unrealistic. In life, we do not get a couple hundred chances at each task to make sure our natural abilities shine through. That would be the fairest way to do things, but life is not fair. The accountant who makes one mistake—forgets to carry the three just once—does not get to keep trying in order to demonstrate his mathematical prowess. Instead, he gets investigated by the SEC.
One mistake can define a person, no matter how good he usually is. If my Spanish test comes back with a giant “F” scrawled on the top, I will be back in line to re-register next semester. So goes real life, and so go the playoffs. We find riveting drama in the fact that those athletes on the field are facing the same situation that we face every day. “Win or go home” is not just a marketing ploy, it is real. Everyone understands what it is like to face that kind of pressure, and we love watching others deal with it.
Ironically, the best example of this drama is found in a sport that does not use a playoff at all. This distinction is more semantic than anything else, however. College football’s post-season system by be arcane and opaque, but it creates the greatest twelve-round playoff in all of sport. Every single game of the college football season carries with it the pressure of a Game Seven, because one loss is often enough to eliminate a team from national championship contention. And pity the team that loses twice—you can punch their ticket to the Sun Bowl right there. By completely removing the safety net from its regular season, college football creates the most life-like drama possible: the next game is always the most important one, just as each new day is always the most important one of our lives.
The Tigers and Cardinals will play Game One of the World Series today. It is very possible that each team was the worst of their respective league’s playoff quartet. History, however, does not care. Whatever the odds were going in, the Tigers and Cardinals won the games on the field. Calling it “luck,” as some people are wont to do, cheapens their victories, but skill is not exactly the determining factor either. In that thin slice of baseball, every team is equal. Success or failure is a fifty-fifty proposition. A wise man once said that “accidental brilliance is still brilliance,” and that captures the idea of the playoffs perfectly. The playoffs are that feeling we get when we know that there will not be a second try, and whatever happens right now will be defining.